March 19, 2009

Wi Fi Fo Fum

I was sitting around this afternoon waiting to see if my $120-a-year iDisk would sync properly so that I could actually do work on my $1,000 MacBook (it wouldn't; I couldn't; thanks a fucking lot, Apple), and to pass the time I decided to satisfy my curiosity about something I'd been wondering about for a while: "Free Public Wifi".

Perhaps you've seen this network ID somewhere while you've been travelling (and perhaps the issue has already jumped the shark, in which case, apologies) — the promise of exactly what you're always looking for when you're travelling with your laptop. Except every time you see one of the "Free Public Wifi" networks and dare to connect, nothing happens. After my first few times, I quickly gave up, fearing it was some sort of phishing scam ("phishing" is not in the built-in Mac OS dictionary, by the way; thanks a fucking lot, Apple), and today I actually got around to checking.

Well, according to this tech writer's blog, it's a virus without the virus; a completely innocuous by-product of some stupid XP code (thanks a fucking lot, Microsoft) that retains the name of a network you've connected to and re-broadcasts it to invite further connections. So, evidently what happened is that someone, somewhere, actually connected to a network called "Free Public Wifi", and then haplessly carried their laptop off to another location where, unbeknownst to them, it continued to broadcast a "Free Public Wifi" signal that did nothing — except tempt other users in the area looking for free wifi. Each time a new XP machine connected, the network name was duplicated, and each time an affected computer was used in a public place (which was presumably often, given that these computers were owned by people in the habit of looking for public wifi), it invited new machines to join in the fun. And now the "Free Public Wifi" network name has spread across so many computers that you're pretty much guaranteed to find one whenever you're sitting in a busy airport.

It's a neat example of a theory I found endlessly fascinating when I was studying sociology: "the strength of weak ties," an idea first conceived by an American named Mark Granovetter. Basically, he said, the way things like this spread through networks is not through the strong, established sub-networks that we all recognise and take for granted — because these sub-networks don't have many exit points. Viruses (biological ones) are actually a good way to visualise it: a mother coming down with the flu might spread it to the immediate sub-network of her family, but those "strong" ties are not the way that flu will spread through an entire city. For that you need a "weak" tie, like a stranger on a subway — these "weak" ties allow the flu to enter other sub-networks where they can then spread rapidly through new groups of tightly connected individuals.

Likewise, people won't connect to a network called "Free Public Wifi" if they're in a place where they go often (like home, or work, or even a coffee shop they frequent), because in those places they already know what the legitimate wifi networks are — they're still within their circle of "strong" network names. It takes a visit to a new place, or a place (like airports) where there are no "regulars" to speak of and no "strong" ties present, for people to start diddling around with "weak" network names, and that's where this stuff really starts to spread. Would-be virus writers take note, I suppose.

Anyway, thus ends the moment of geekery. Thanks for listening.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know this is and old post, but I found it while trying to find out about the "Free Public Wifi" signal that I acquired with my cell phone, yesterday on the 3 train (NYC).

I was just sitting there and decided to see what would happen if I did a search. It popped up as the only network available, while going full speed beween stations. I got all excited (I'm very new to wifi - this is my first wifi enabled device - Sony Ericsson C905a - great phone by the way), thinking the MTA added WiFi to the trains and I didn't hear about it. I was looking around at all the other people on the train with laptops and i-phones-pods, thinking they all new about it already. Of course, when I tried to navigate to a site, I couldn't get anywhere. I figured I must need to go to some MTA wireless portal and accept some terms (like in Bryant Park), before I could get anywhere.

It's funny that I was just acquiring someone elses signal on the train. I wonder if I would be able to send them a message, like with that old bluetooth hack.

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